Columbine, by Dave Cullen


In most respects Columbine is a very well-written account of the Columbine High School massacre. I was drawn in from the very beginning, always wanting to know more about what happened, and about the surrounding context. The descriptions of events are vivid and understandable. The author has psychologically interesting things to say about the people involved in the story. And he seems to be genuinely trying to be as accurate and objective as possible, as opposed to the various other approaches one might take, such as maximizing sensationalism, fudging things to make certain aspects of the story more uplifting and positive, spinning to lead readers to a desired political/social/religious conclusion, etc.

As to the last point, yes, he makes various points along the way about the killers, motives, errors of law enforcement, what journalists got right and wrong in their initial take on the murders, and so on, but what I mean is I got the sense his conclusions flowed from the massive amount of research he did, rather than his wanting to write a “liberal” or “conservative” or whatever sort of book all along, and then shaping things to fit that.

It strikes me as solid journalism, in other words.

I will, though, quibble with the structure of the book. It’s not chronological, and in fact, I don’t know what it is. I’m not able to reverse engineer it and figure out what the author’s organizing principle was.

One thing that occurred to me is maybe he’s telling things in the order he (or the outside world collectively) found them out. But ultimately I don’t think that fits either.

The early chapters tell the story of the massacre itself, but in a decidedly incomplete way. You get bits and pieces of what happened, but it’s separate little snapshots of what was going on with this individual in this corner of the chaos, and what was going on with this other individual in this other corner, and how things looked from outside at the time to the stunned people (parents, law enforcement, reporters, etc.) trying to decipher it all.

It’s not a global, omniscient narrative of the whole thing. It’s especially thin on just what the killers themselves were doing from moment to moment, like in the areas where the bulk of the shootings took place.

Then almost the entire rest of the book jumps around from place to place and time to time. There’s some of the prelude, then some of the aftermath, then a portrait of one of the victims, then more of the prelude, then a few more details of the shootings themselves, then more of the aftermath, etc., etc.

All or most of that is quite interesting, but still, in the back of my mind there was a certain frustration or suspense that things were left hanging in the initial description of the massacre. I liked the supplementary stuff, but my feeling was, “Can we do this later? Get back to precisely what happened with the killers in the school.” And then the pages dwindled and dwindled to where I wondered if or when he’d be able to fill in those gaps.

Finally it comes, and even though it does provide some decent detail on some of the events that had been skipped (like how the murderers themselves died), somehow it doesn’t feel as climactic as it should. The fact that it’s so short, and placed at the very end, if anything gives it the feel of an addendum, rather than what the book has been building toward.

I’m just saying how I reacted. I felt like maybe he got a little too cute with the structure.

But beyond that, as far as the substance, it’s interesting and informative all the way.

This isn’t a subject I knew very much about going in. I hadn’t followed it in more than a cursory fashion at the time, and I hadn’t delved into it much since. I saw Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, but that’s more of a personal essay on various loosely related topics inspired by the massacre, rather than being about the massacre itself. And I remember I read one lengthy obscure article years after the killings that was a sort of “conspiracy theory” thing. (It was mildly thought-provoking, but I didn’t see enough to persuade me, mostly because it made the common mistake of conspiracy theorists of wildly overrating the reliability of eyewitness accounts, at least those that fit the theorists’ preferred hypothesis.)

Oh, and I remember I’d already read debunkings of the story of the fundamentalist Christian “martyr” girl (never having read the initial story about her).

So much of this was new to me. As it happens, one of the author’s purposes in the book is to correct the various common myths about the killings, but a lot of times I was only vaguely aware of the myth, let alone the truth.

From this point, let me just toss out a few elements of the book that happen to have stuck in my mind.

According to the author, the murderers were not a couple of loners or non-conformists (or goths or homosexuals or whatever) who finally “blew” when they couldn’t take the ostracism, harassment, and bullying any longer, and targeted those who had victimized them, or at least were vaguely of the type who had.

In fact, they had friends and were reasonably popular, even if not a part of the most conventional “in crowd.” They dated. (Eric was moderately successful with the ladies; Dylan not so much.) They seemed to get no more than the usual amount of teasing and bullying that’s a conventional (ugly and unfortunate) part of childhood and high school, and in fact were perpetrators more often than victims of such behavior. They targeted no individuals or types of individuals in particular, as their motive was not revenge per se (except insofar as the world or humanity collectively had wronged them in some amorphous way). It was not some kind of spontaneous act of rage, but a premeditated crime that they had thought of and vaguely planned for years in advance, and actively prepared for in detail for months in advance.

Nor should they always be thought of as a unit. Their personalities, motives, behavior, family backgrounds, etc. were substantially different.

Insofar as the “why” question is answerable at all, the author pretty much places the blame on their own individual psychology. It wasn’t something their families or the school or society did wrong.

Eric was a classic psychopath. And even within that set, he was in the tiny subset of the most extreme and lethal of psychopaths. He was obsessed with death, violence, guns, Nazism, explosives, power, his own superiority, etc. He was charming when he needed to be, a good bullshitter, cool under pressure, pretty much a conscienceless giant ball of ego.

Dylan was a milder version of Eric. Even though behaviorally he was sometimes the more active, energetic, forceful one (he was one of those people who only really loses his temper once in a while, but when they do it’s so scary and over the top and seemingly out of character that friends and family are startled and concerned), but psychologically he was the follower. (The author notes that if you watch closely the tapes they made before the killings, even when Dylan goes off on a rant, he sneaks a glance at Eric, looking for his approval.) He was more suicidal than homicidal. He was more the romantic, troubled soul type who laments the fact that he doesn’t fit in the world.

Eric was more straightforwardly, purely evil, a lot more committed to the murders, handling nearly all the planning and expenses, calling the shots. Dylan was more half-hearted about it, kind of in and out, finally going along with it because when the date arrived he still hadn’t gotten around to killing himself as he’d planned, so what the hell.

Eric’s plans were far more grandiose than what they ended up doing. Actually in the broadest sense, his plans were to destroy the human race—that was his wildest fantasy in his heart of hearts—but since he saw no path to doing so, he set his sights lower to trying to top the Timothy McVeigh Oklahoma City bombing.

The idea was not to go in and shoot a dozen or so people, but to set off bombs to blow up the school, to use their guns to mow down stragglers emerging from the wreckage, and even to blow up as many as possible of the responders (paramedics, law enforcement, press, parents, etc.) with bombs in their cars, strategically parked near where they anticipated most of that activity occurring, set to go off considerably after the initial bombs inside the school itself.

It was only because they screwed up the explosives (they were indeed placed in the school, but they never went off), that they went into the school with their guns as a half-assed, spontaneously decided fallback, and shot a few of the people who were all supposed to have been blown to bits. And in fact they didn’t shoot nearly as many people as they could have. Dylan seems to have shot very few—he was pretty much just tagging along—and Eric evidently got bored pretty quickly after the initial adrenaline rush of homicide, and even he passed up the vast majority of his opportunities to kill, just impulsively shooting a random person here and there.

In short, it could have been much, much worse. This was a major failure compared to what was intended. Considering that they were first timers to the whole mass murder thing, and considering that they were just a couple of kids, they did a decent job of putting this whole plan together and executing it. But had they been just a little more efficient (mostly they just needed to be more skilled at making bombs that would actually detonate), it would have been a lot more horrific.

I found that to be the most chilling aspect of reading this book, the realization that it wasn’t at all far-fetched that this could have been a much more massive mass murder, that they came pretty darn close to pulling it off, and that it really wouldn’t be all that hard for the next nut case with a similar plan to succeed.

The author’s psychopath theory I mostly found persuasive, but I do have some misgivings. The way he presents it, there are a small number of people—psychopaths—who for all intents and purposes are not even potential moral persons. They not only differ in their behavior, but their actual brain activity is identifiably different from that of non-psychopaths. It’s typically a lifelong condition. Only very rarely does a psychopath become a non-psychopath later in life, and it’s unpredictable when it does happen. The things that one might hope would make it more likely—therapy, reasoning with the person, etc.—actually are detrimental. By giving the psychopath more practice in certain kinds of verbal interaction, they render him better able to bullshit and tell people what they want to hear, which makes him a more effective and more dangerous psychopath.

I’m hesitant to go all the way with him on this, because I don’t believe (or don’t want to believe, I’m not sure which) that there is this class of unreachable monsters among us. Because what would you do with people who due to their brain structure are literally incapable of responding to moral influence, whether rational or emotional?

It’s a reason to give up on people. It’s a reason in the aftermath of a terrible event like this to avoid all self-doubt and say there’s nothing we could have done, since the perpetrator(s) wasn’t reachable anyway. (There could still be regrets of a sort, comparable to regretting not taking sufficient precautions against a wild animal or a hurricane or some such harmful entity without human status and rights, but there couldn’t be regret in the sense of regretting that we haven’t eliminated or at least made rarer such behavior by constructing a more just society, treating people with love and respect from childhood on, etc., because these are monsters who couldn’t respond to such things anyway.) It gives me a vision of the authorities consulting brain scans in deciding whom to weed out of the general population as lost causes.

And I suspect that however objective and scientific the psychology and neurology behind it all is made out to be, somehow by coincidence a disproportionate number of these subhuman psychopaths will turn out to be poor, members of whichever racial group is most powerless and unpopular at a given time, etc.

Reading this reminded me of the documentary from a few years back called The Corporation. It’s a leftist film that seeks to show that if we take seriously the notion that corporations are “persons”—which they are treated as for most legal purposes—then they would be utterly psychopathic persons. And the movie’s right. Not just as hyperbole or as a clever polemical metaphor or something, but literally. That’s what corporations are, with predictable results.

That being part of my worldview is one of the reasons I’m such a pessimist about human nature and politics and such. Most people live in a world where people like Eric and Dylan are once in a blue moon villains that we can be horrified by, shake our fists at, call for the death penalty for, and so on, and then get back to our lives. I live in a world where there are countless Erics and Dylans, and they thoroughly dominate the economy, government, the media, etc. I live in a world where we’ve elevated our psychopaths to the highest positions, and we denounce anyone who finds their behavior somehow objectionable.

But those are the kinds of powerful psychopaths we’re least likely to give up on. As I say, it’s the dregs of society who’ll be labeled and dealt with harshly as being irredeemable when they behave in a shitty fashion.

What also came to mind as I read this was my having read another Oliver Sacks book recently, and just contemplating how vastly, almost unimaginably, different people can be mentally. Different emotions, different perceptions, different responses to the same stimuli, etc.

Maybe the author’s right that psychopaths are as permanently morally blind as Sack’s patients are unalterably unable to remember their past, or see color, or understand the concept of “left,” or whatever. Maybe it’s just some other kind of brain damage. I don’t know.

Reading these two books makes me think about how you really can’t generalize from your own mind, your own consciousness, and think what’s going on inside you is pretty much how everyone else experiences life too.

I mean there are a lot of screwy things I’ve done, and could do under certain circumstances, but I just don’t see anything inside me that could give rise to behavior like Eric and Dylan’s. It’s so utterly foreign to me. But it’s real. There are certainly people like that.

The families of the victims of Columbine had a wide range of reactions and coping strategies. Some became more religious (though that tended to be temporary—church attendance rates and such in the area shot up in the immediate aftermath of the killings, and then gradually dropped back down to where they had been before). Some couldn’t handle it, including one of the mothers (who had a history of mental illness and suicidal tendencies) who killed herself. Some tried to be as compassionate and forgiving as they realistically could about it, in effect including Eric and Dylan and their families in their mourning. One father was a total dick, bashing anyone who didn’t hate and condemn the murderers as bitterly as he, and using the killings as a springboard for “Operation Rescue”-style anti-abortion activity and propaganda, and other right wing political shenanigans.

The parents of the murderers were roundly blamed and harassed and condemned for their supposed causal role in all this, not necessarily so much by the families of the victims specifically, but by the community and the general public. And it was pretty much one of those absurd “any excuse to hate” things. Eric’s parents were more of the conventional, conservative style of child raising, and Dylan’s parents were more toward the liberal side, but neither seemed like remotely irresponsible parents. If anything, they were more “hands on” and made more diligent efforts to be good parents than most folks do.

There was also the usual condemnation of the media, with the school and the community convincing themselves that the media were re-victimizing them. The author reports that ultimately opposition to the media at the school was nearly unanimous.

I think in the vast majority of cases—including this one—media bashing is unjustified scapegoating.

In general terms at least. Ideally you’d have to look on a case-by-case basis at each reporter, each story, etc. to determine what was and wasn’t objectionable. No doubt some of the behavior from tabloid-types and such was reprehensible—e.g., making things up for the purposes of sensationalism—but the criticisms were more of the “leave us alone” variety, like reporting the story, filming public events, asking questions, etc. were inherently disrespectful and inappropriate. Which I say is a crock. It’s a huge story, and the media should present it as thoroughly (and accurately) as they are able. I don’t think you should refrain from reporting the news because traumatized people might be further traumatized by your doing so.

The author notes that law enforcement came under heavy criticism as well, which he clearly thinks was justified, and based on what I read here it’s hard not to agree. He describes much to find fault with before, during, and after the murders.

A lot of the “before” stuff I’m somewhat forgiving of, because it only looks really bad because we have the benefit of hindsight. Eric and Dylan, Eric especially, were in and out of trouble with the law, Eric was reported to the police numerous times by a fellow student and the student’s family for harassing and threatening them with violence, and Eric had a website that the police were made aware of wherein he wrote openly about his various murderous fantasies.

So of course now one can say, “With all those red flags, why didn’t someone stop them?” But I don’t know. How many teenagers manifest behavior at least as “red flaggy” as that, and how many of those subsequently commit horrific crimes? The authorities probably should have done more than they did before the killings (though it’s not like they did nothing; Eric and Dylan spent a year in a sort of juvenile probation/counseling/community service thing for their petty crimes), but it’s not a no-brainer. There’s not enough manpower (nor is there justification) to lock up forever or very closely scrutinize every kid who behaves like an asshole and manifests this degree of dangerous tendencies.

The main instance where law enforcement seemingly did drop the ball before the crimes was when they gathered enough evidence to almost certainly justify getting a search warrant for Eric’s home (where they would have found a massive arsenal in his closet—it’s not like they had some sophisticated system for concealing their material and covering their tracks), but then they never got around to submitting the forms to a judge to get the warrant. Evidently it was one of numerous things some cop was working on simultaneously, he was reassigned or had some time off before completing it, and then by the time he or someone else revisited the matter, they realized so much time had passed that a judge probably would no longer agree to the warrant (since one of the requirements is that the evidence be timely). So they set it aside unless and until fresh evidence arose.

As far as during the event, the main criticism is that the SWAT team delayed entering the school, and once they finally did enter, they worked their way through the building very slowly and methodically for hours, room by room. They also in some cases delayed taking out the wounded people they discovered, because their procedure was to secure the whole building first. As a result, at least one person bled to death who probably would have survived if given medical attention sooner, and probably others ended up worse off than they would have been with timelier treatment.

On the one hand you can understand their defense—no one had any idea initially if there was one shooter or a large number (most assumed it was a lot more than the two it turned out to be), what arms they had, where they were, if there were hostages, or really much of anything. It was massive chaos that they’d be walking into, with a highly unpredictable level of risk.

But you know, not to be unsympathetic or anything, but they’re a SWAT team for Pete’s sake. I’m just speaking as a layman, not as someone with knowledge of the standard operating procedures for SWAT teams, or all the arguments for and against such procedures, but isn’t it their job to move in as quickly and efficiently as possible when there’s an ongoing situation with people being killed?

Yes, people might shoot at them, or there might be bombs set to go off, but again, unfortunately this is one of those jobs where you occasionally have to put yourself in harm’s way. Firemen sometimes find themselves at really bad, unpredictable fires, where they have to run into a burning building that may collapse on them, but they do it. And that’s why they get parades and praise and gratitude, and they pose for risqué calendars and women all want to sleep with them and all that. Being on a SWAT team is going to have its advantages and disadvantages as well.

But where the authorities behaved most indefensibly was after the massacre. According to the author, this part really isn’t a close call. They lied repeatedly, and tried to cover up everything that could possibly put them in a bad light, which of course put them in a much worse light since they lied so amateurishly as to keep getting caught.

The author only briefly touches on the kind of conspiracy theories I’d read of in that one article I mentioned early in this essay. He’s dismissive of any of that. There’s just no significant evidence for any alternative to the official account.

Personally I was quite impressed with the principal of the high school. Now, in some ways he probably doesn’t fit my values all that well. (The few students who didn’t like him regarded him as way too conventional and conservative in putting so much emphasis on sports and pep rallies and school spirit and traditional measures of success.) But at a deeper level, you really have to respect the guy. I mean, he was about as dedicated to a job as a person can be, and he loved these kids like they were his own children. For a man who in some ways was very conventional, it’s impressive how willing he was to express emotion, to get choked up pleading with them before prom to stay safe and not drive drunk, to openly cry in front of the assembled students and parents after the massacre, etc.

And according to the author, as cynical as teenagers are, as mistrustful of authority as they are, and as anxious as they are about looking uncool, nearly all of them saw the principal as being utterly sincere and genuine, and they reciprocated his warm feelings for them.

Very high profile cases like this often provide an impetus for changes in societal attitudes, law, and social policy. Probably inappropriately, since a case extreme enough to attain such notoriety is probably pretty atypical. But reading a book like this does naturally put one in the frame of mind of asking “What can we learn from this to lessen the chances of it happening again in the future?”

I think a lot of people will think the appropriate response (and this is kind of the direction our society has in fact gone in) is just to be a lot more controlling of schoolchildren. So metal detectors, even less respect for civil liberties, harsher punishments for the low level crimes that could lead to the more serious ones, etc.

Probably not such a hot reaction in my opinion, but it’s predictable that that’s what people will call for when they’re understandably angry and traumatized.

On the right, Columbine is routinely cited as evidence of why we need to reintroduce prayer and other trappings of religion (which invariably means fundamentalist Christianity) into public schools. On the left, it’s routinely cited as evidence of why we need stricter gun control.

Again I don’t think a single case should be given too much weight in deciding such matters, but for what it’s worth, as usual I find the conservative position goofy, and the liberal position at least plausible.

Due to almost totally unregulated gun shows and such, it was laughably easy for Eric and Dylan to get all the guns and explosives they wanted. (Well, maybe “laughably” isn’t the best word choice, but you know what I mean.) It may be that they—especially Eric—were psychopathic enough that they would have turned violent and even homicidal regardless, but anything you can do to add some extra hurdles is bound to prevent some incidents, and reduce the body count in others.

Would making it a little harder for unbalanced teenagers to arm themselves to the teeth really be such a bad thing, or really violate the Constitutional provision allowing for members of well-regulated state militias to be armed?

Anyway, I’ve gone on much longer than I intended about this book (which is a sign it got through to me and had an impact). I don’t know how high I’d rank it as far as the best books I’ve read, but I will say it was one that engaged me from start to finish, one I eagerly looked for opportunities to resume reading. The first part that is most about the massacre itself is especially gripping, but even if it drops off in intensity somewhat after that, Columbine still held my interest at a pretty high level throughout.


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